For the past six weeks or so I have been swept up, lost in dizzy admiration of the descriptive imagery, sensual overtones, sardonic humour and ironic playfulness of The Leopard [1960; revised 1962], Alexander Colquhoun’s English translation of Il Gattopardo by Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (Milan, 1958). I’ve been reading the Vintage Classics’ version (2007) and Harvill Secker’s Centenary edition, both of which have left me confused, stumped, annoyed and lost in a muddle of textual versions.
Firstly, it’s odd that, to celebrate 100 years of international writing, HS choose to reissue the ‘revised text’ of the 2007 Vintage Classics’ paperback edition as a hardback and not reissue Colquhoun’s unsurpassed translation. Only on reaching page 122, when an editorial note intrudes into the text, does it become apparent that Colquhoun’s translation has been revised. It is not stated whether there are other interventions, revisions, or deletions, nor is it clear who did them, when and why.
Secondly, I’m appalled to find that the ‘definitive version’ of this important Italian novel has never been translated into English. To coincide with their Centenary edition, Vintage is currently promoting their 2007 edition of The Leopard as ‘Book of the Month’ for July. On their website they claim they are offering ‘for the first time, in any language, the full original text’. As noted above, the Vintage Classics’ version is a ‘revised text’ of The Leopard. It’s a reprinting of Colquhoun’s translation but revised and with additional passages. The text is enfolded within a new and comprehensive introduction and an Appendix of newly discovered material, which was compiled by Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi [and translated by Guido Waldman]. Presumably, by ‘full original text’ they mean they have made available all of Lampedusa’s writing on The Leopard. This is not the same as providing a fresh translation of the ‘definitive version’.
Confusingly, HS don’t reprint Lanza Tomasi’s excellent ‘Foreword’ from the Vintage Classics’ edition (2007). Lanza Tomasi offers a comprehensive historical and political contextualisation of the novel and provides up-to-date, meticulous research of its composition and publication history as well as an Appendix of newly discovered material. It’s hard not to wonder whether Lanza Tomasi’s ‘Foreword’ is omitted because it might highlight the dissonance between his argument that Lampedusa’s holograph manuscript is the ‘definitive version’ of the novel and the text which is translated.
The Leopard is a novel about endings; the passing of a way of life, the decline of a family line, made all the more poignant in that it was written by a man at the end of his own life, who died before seeing his book in print. Lanza Tomasi explains how, owing to its posthumous publication, questions of authorial intention remained unsettled until 2000, when new material was uncovered. At his death in 1957, Lampedusa left three different versions of the novel:
1. a set of manuscript notebooks containing the first draft (1956) – now lost
2. a typescript compiled by his assistant Orlando from the lost notebooks which contain Lampedusa’s corrections and additions. It was initially sent out to publishers in 1957 but rejected and never published
3. a holograph manuscript version written in 1957 after the typescript was complete and which contains Lampedusa’s final corrections, additions and deletions.
Il Gattopardo was first published posthumously in 1958 in Milan by the publisher Feltrinelli. Lampedusa continued to work on his novel after he’d sent off the typescript, adding chapters, changing single words and phrases, so that Giorgio Bassani produced a version of the text from his reading of both the typescript and the holograph manuscript. As Lanza Tomasi notes, ‘the punctuation was radically revised by the copy editor’ and yet, Bassani’s synthesis reading is ‘the one on which all the early translations are based, including the English one by Alexander Colquhoun’ (for Collins Harvill in 1960; rev. 1962) (Vintage Classics, ‘Foreword’, translated by Guido Waldman, p. xxiv).
In his ‘Foreword’ Lanza Tomasi reprints significant papers from Lampedusa’s correspondence, including his will, where he writes of his wishes for ‘all possible steps to be taken to publish The Leopard (the manuscript in question is the handwritten one contained in a single fat notebook)’ (Vintage Classics (2007), p. xiv. Despite Lanza Tomasi’s clear evidence of authorial intention that the holograph manuscript is the ‘definitive version’ of The Leopard, the Vintage Classics’ edition (2007) did not provide a new translation but reprinted Colquhoun’s version with the two above mentioned additional passages freshly translated from the manuscript for the first time and inserted into the text. The editorial note on p. 122 explains that four additional passages in the holograph manuscript do not appear in the typescript and explains that, although Colquhoun had inserted two of them in his version of the text, this edition adds the other two passages which he had omitted. What the note doesn’t explain is who has translated them nor whether there is any other editorial intervention in ‘the present new edition.’ Presumably, it is Guido Waldman, who also translates the Foreword and Appendix for the 2007 Vintage Classics’ version, but it is nowhere stated.
For readers unfamiliar with the novel it seems pertinent here to provide a brief synopsis of The Leopard. The setting is revolutionary Sicily; the action covers a span of fifty years, from 1860 to 1910, and charts events, for the most part, through the eyes of Don Fabrizio Corbero, the last Prince of Salina. Against a backdrop of the Risorgimento and rise of the petite bourgeoisie, Tancredi Falconeri, Don Fabrizio’s favoured nephew, sums up the threat to the old order in words which provide the centre of the novel and gives a flavour of the cynically defeatist tone that pervades the text: ‘Unless we ourselves take a hand, they’ll foist a republic on us. If we want things to remain the same things will have to change’, he urges (p. 19). He joins Garibaldi’s red shirts rampaging across the island but later leaves the ‘rabble’ for the blue shirted Piedmontese cavalry and forfeits a long-assumed marriage to Don Fabrizio’s daughter, Concetta, in favour of Angelica, the beautiful but socially unsuitable daughter of Don Calogero Sedàra, the new Mayor of Donnafugata and enacts a smooth transition into the new order. Meanwhile, Don Fabrizio remains aloof but watchful, resolutely uninvolved but lamenting the forces of change that seek to overthrow an imperfect order for one that is no better.
Moments of black humour, such as when Don Calogero arrives to an important dinner at the Prince’s palace at Donnafugata dressed inappropriately ‘in tails’, both lighten the tone and at the same time, add to the overall sense of impending doom. On hearing of his social gaffe, Don Fabrizio feels,
this news had more effect than the bulletin about Garibaldi’s landing at Marsala. That had been an event not only foreseen but also distant and invisible. Now, with his sensibility to presages and symbols, he saw revolution in that white tie and two black tails moving at this moment up the stairs of his own home. (p. 55)
Overall, the tone is elegiac, tinged with irony and sardonic black humour. Major themes and events are discussed through metaphor and sensual description. The death of a Bourbon soldier, hunting a rabbit, grafting ‘foreign’ stock on to the ancient peach trees, all signify the changing social and political order.
Sex is a potent revolutionary force which seeps through the text in the rustle of silk dresses and sensual kisses. In Tancredi’s engagement to Angelica the placing of a ring on her finger is tantamount to reasserting control of the island:
Then he embraced her again, sensual anticipation made them both tremble; the room, the bystanders, seemed very far away; and he felt as if by those kisses he were taking possession of Sicily once more, of the lovely faithless land which now, after a vain revolt, had surrendered to him again, as always to his family, its central delights and crops. (p. 116)
Most potent of all is Tancredi and Angelica’s highly charged yet sexually restrained ‘dreamy wanderings’ through ‘secret’ rooms in the palace of Donnafugata.
It is in this section that the additional lines from the holograph manuscript are inserted. The first addition is a list of the items found in the Sadist’s apartments, including, ‘a bundle of small whips, switches of bull’s muscle, … and metal instruments for inexplicable purposes’(p. 121). The second is a narrative explanation: ‘He [Tancredi] realised he had arrived at the secret nucleus, the centre from which all the carnal agitation within the palace radiated outward.’ The new passages render the scene darker, malevolent, and less playfully erotic and make explicit the significance of why ‘Tancredi was afraid, also of himself’ (p. 122).
There are other readings of the novel elsewhere offering a tantalising glimpse of lost words. In The Last Leopard David Gilmour’s excellent biography of Lampedusa, Gilmour brings this grumpy, surprisingly sensitive author to light. From his opening Indiana Jones-style adventure he takes us on an illegal, early-morning raid amongst decaying timbers and worm-eaten books into Lampedusa’s neglected library. He interrogates Lampedusa’s life, writing and legacy, delving into family papers and long discarded manuscripts. He notes a discrepancy between the holograph manuscript and the published text. ‘During his [Don Fabrizio’s] dying confession’, writes Gilmour, ‘he cannot even decide what were his real sins. He feels his whole life has been blameworthy rather than individual acts, and then wonders whether this consideration does not negate the whole notion of sin.’ “The only real sin”, he reflects, “is original sin.” In a footnote Gilmour explains ‘these words appear in the final manuscript of the novel but not in the typescript made by Orlando. Bassani had both versions before him when he was preparing The Leopard but chose, I think wrongly in this case, the wording of the typescript’ (Eland Publishing, rev. 2007), p. 186). These words do not appear in either Colquhoun’s translation, the Vintage Classics’ paperback (2007), or HS’s Centenary edition.
Published in hardback, in a limited run of 2,500 copies in high quality paper with generous margins and larger typeface, together with elegant black end papers and silk bookmark, The Leopard is one of several important international titles which HS are reissuing this year to mark their cumulative Centenary. Other titles reissued include J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and still to come is a promised new translation of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago (October). While the outward appearance of the HS Centenary edition conveys the same sumptuous elegance of Colquhoun’s translation it’s hard not to feel that an opportunity has been lost by reissuing the latest ‘revised text’ without editorial explanation. Italian readers have had access to a published version of the holograph manuscript of Lampedusa’s novel since 1969.
English readers are still awaiting a translation of the ‘definitive version’.
………………………………………………….. The Leopard is one of those books that changes your view of what constitutes great literature. I was introduced to this now favourite book via my bookish twitter-friend,Amro and have spent the past six weeks immersed in the glories of Lampedusa’s world. You can follow my webby wanderings through the links below.
The Last Leopard was updated in 2007 in a revised edition published by Eland Press.
Random House publicity blurb for the Vintage Classics’ paperback ‘revised version’ of The Leopard (2007)
There’s an interesting site offering literary tours of Leopard landmarks
Edmund White recently visited Lampedusa’s library – link to his NYBooks blog
The Leopard manuscript on display at a centenary seminar held at the NLSin Edinburgh
Take a peek at a tantalising glimpse of Visconti’s movie from one of the many scenes postd on youtube